Articles Posted in Eyewitness identification

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The recent release of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin (also known as the West Memphis Three) may remind the residents of San Antonio and Bexar County of another young man – Ruben Cantu. Ruben Cantu was a Texan who was tried in San Antonio, Texas for the murder and attempted murder of two males at a construction site. While the two cases vary in both the scope of the crimes and the outcomes of those convicted, they can teach us an indispensable lesson in the fallible nature of our criminal justice system.

In both cases, all four young men were all tried as adults (despite the fact that Damien Echols was the only one who was over the age of 18 years old at the time of his alleged crime) and there was no physical evidence linking them to the crimes. In addition, the prosecution’s entire cases hinged on the shaky testimonies of sole eye witnesses. Testimonies that were later recanted.

In San Antonio, Ruben Cantu was convicted and later executed for armed robbery and murder that occurred in 1984. Many believed, and still believe, that Ruben Cantu became the prime suspect months later when he shot an off-duty police officer in a barroom altercation. Was Ruben Cantu framed for a crime he did not commit because of an unrelated incident? In the years following his conviction, the surviving victim Juan Moreno, the co-defendant David Garza, the then Bexar County District Attorney Sam Millsap, and the head juror have all publicly declared that Ruben Cantu’s guilty verdict and death sentence were a mistake. The state of Texas administered a lethal injection to an innocent man.
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photo.lineup.image.jpgTexas has been receiving attention over the past several years for the number of wrongful conviction in our state. Although Texas has far more wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence than any other state, this is a problem nationwide. The overwhelming majority of these wrongful convictions are due to erroneous eyewitness testimony. According to a report issued by The Justice Project in November 2008:

“Faulty eyewitness identification has played a role in over 75% of the 223 DNA exoneration cases in our country thus far, making mistaken eyewitness identification the leading cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. The same holds true in Texas where 82% of the state’s 38 DNA exonerations involved mistaken eyewitness identifications…Because eyewitness evidence, much like trace physical evidence, is susceptible to contamination if not collected properly, some identification procedures can actually increase the risk of false identification.”

The United States Supreme Court has also recognized the substantial role that eye witness testimony plays in wrongful convictions. See United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218, 228 (1967). The “vagaries of eyewitness identification are well-known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identifications.” Id.

Recognizing the problem with eyewitness identifications, the Texas government has passed a bill that addresses how law enforcement agencies obtain the identifications. Texas House Bill 215, will require Texas police departments to have in place new eyewitness identification procedures. This bill shows that at least the Texas government is aware there is a problem with our justice system that needs to be fixed.

HB 215, codified as article 38.20 in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, requires all law enforcement agencies in TExas who regularly conduct photograph or live lineup procedures when performing the officer’s official duties. According to the bill, law enforcement agencies can either adopt the model policy created by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University or the law enforcement agency may adopts it’s own written policy that conforms to subsection (c) of Article 38.20.
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